The David Brooks Seduction

David Brooks, more than almost any other conservative pundit, does the best job of putting a congenial face on Republican dogma, turning it into rational-sounding, no-brainer soundbites. Smart people of many stripes read him and think: “Yeah, of course that’s right, it all sounds so reasonable.”

But then you read a column like the one for tomorrow’s NY Times. And you’re reminded of the one-dimensionality — the stunning naivete — of his thinking. Take this paragraph from near the very end:

Both parties see the same problem. The current system is a mess, with opaque prices and perverse incentives that mostly favor the insurance companies. But, as Yuval Levin has pointed out in National Review, the Democrats believe the answer is to create a highly regulated insurance system with inefficiencies eliminated through rational rules. The Republicans believe that the answer is to create a genuine market with clear price signals, empowered consumers and an evolving process.

The emphasis added in mine. This last sentence is the perfect encapsulation of almost every argument we’ve heard from Republicans, on almost every possible issue. More freedom! Let the market forces work their magic!

Brooks rarely questions the argument — indeed, he offers no challenge to the Republican position in his piece for tomorrow’s Times — and often advances it with his warm of embrace for folks like Paul Ryan.  And you wonder if he learned anything over the past 30 years.

Thirty years of Republican economic rule (Reaganism, essentially) with unchecked de-regulation and the neutering of government oversight in so many arenas of economic life. You’d think we’d be in some kind of free market nirvana by now. But I think we’ve all learned the past couple of years just how far from nirvana we are.

Take the telecommunications business. I spent yesterday morning at Gigaom‘s offices in San Francisco with sixty other entrepreneurs and Internet infrastructure executives who spent 2 hours bemoaning the state of US broadband and wireless networks, and how quickly and far we’ve fallen behind other countries in Asia and Europe. Not one person blamed the government for this state of affairs — indeed, there has been massive deregulation in the telecoms space over the past 15 years.

Instead, nearly everyone focused on the large carriers — their bureaucracy, lack of vision, their focus on short term margins and pure defensive behavior. (This hilarious Fake Steve Jobs rant about Randall Stephenson might give you a taste of the venom in the room).

And this is the big lie of the libertarian, Ayn Rand-loving, government-suspecting free market acolytes like David Brooks and Paul Ryan. Deregulation and less government doesn’t lead to free markets — not in telecommunication, not in finance, not in health care, not in energy.  Because it turns out that corporations and corporatists abhor free markets more than Communists. And will do everything in their powers to stymie competition, and to maintain their advantages.

You never hear Republicans or conservatives or libertarians make this argument. And it makes you wonder: are these folks just naive dupes? Or are they so passionate in their anti-government ideology that they’re blinded by this larger truth.

Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan loved getting a laugh with this quip: “The nine most terrifying words are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” Too many people believed him, and AT&T, Goldman Sachs, Well Point, and Enron laughed all the way to the bank.


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